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Chops: Secrets of Orchestral Writing

John Clayton, Billy Childs, and Uri Caine bring in the strings

John Clayton conducts the Toronto Jazz Orchestra, Benny Green, and Christian McBride in performance of Oscar Peterson’s Africa Suite, February 2020 (photo: Daniel Nawrocki)
John Clayton conducts the Toronto Jazz Orchestra, Benny Green, and Christian McBride in performance of Oscar Peterson’s Africa Suite, February 2020 (photo: Daniel Nawrocki)

Many jazz artists have written music for large ensembles, from nonets all the way up to big bands of 16 pieces or more. But precious few have written for classical orchestras, either chamber or full-scale. We spoke with three noted jazz players who’ve taken that leap to learn a few of their tricks of the trade.

John Clayton was trained as a classical bassist and has written numerous works for orchestras, including most recently Home, a piece inspired by Dvorák’s New World Symphony and composed for the CityMusic Cleveland Orchestra. He advises that anyone looking to write an orchestral piece should start basic. “I’ve learned the importance of not starting with the roof,” Clayton says. “Build a foundation first. If you’re going to write an orchestra piece, don’t start with an orchestra piece because you will totally be overwhelmed. Start with smaller ensembles that might reflect the instrumentation of a larger orchestra, such as chamber pieces or string quartets. Find the model that really excites you, and then analyze that. After you’ve analyzed it, you put your feet in those shoes and you actually create something following the guidelines you’ve discerned from that example.”

To understand the technique behind a great orchestral piece, Clayton recommends a combination of transcription and score-studying: “Fall in love with the sound, learn the piece by how it sounds, choose sections of it that you’re really curious about, and then write out what you’re hearing. Then go to the score and compare what you’ve done to what was actually done. That is a huge learning experience, because what composers are trying to do is take the sounds in their ears and put them down on score paper, and then you take those black dots and share them with your friends, who then breathe life into the music so that you can experience how close the performance is to what’s in your head. You learn all that technical stuff, but it needs to come from clarity that’s within.”

Pianist Billy Childs, who’s been composing for orchestras and chamber ensembles since he studied composition at USC in the ’70s, concurs that doing a deep dive with scores can reap dividends for developing composers. “If there’s a piece that you really loved, it’s not enough to just appreciate that piece—you have to get a score and find out why it works,” Childs says. “A good thing to study is traditional theory. Not so much jazz theory, but common-practice theory, the theory of Bach, of Baroque music, of the Romantic era. It’s more of a template of what works and what doesn’t harmonically, and it gives you more flexibility. You just have to work on the craft to get it communicated the way you want.”

Like Clayton and Childs, pianist Uri Caine had some academic training in orchestral work, but he found on-the-job demands to be more educational. “I studied it at Penn,” he notes, “but it’s one thing to read an orchestration book and another to write something that, when you hear it back, you realize why it doesn’t sound right. Honestly, it’s still a learning process. Orchestrating is an art and a science.” 

Caine learned much about producing a proper score from one of his earlier commissions, also written for the Cleveland Orchestra. “I got a call from the percussionist, who I didn’t know,” he says. “He said to me, ‘The parts you sent, they’re not going to respect it if they see it the way you’ve written it out. Come out here and we’ll show you how to do it.’ I don’t know if they expected me to show up, but I did. I sat with them for three days and I got the whole science of making it not just sight-readable but correct.”

Uri Caine (photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot)
Uri Caine (photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot)

All three artists have mixed feelings about the software that’s available to composers. “These days, there are shortcuts, and the shortcuts, I think, are inhibiting the growth of musicians,” Clayton says. “People are entering their music into Sibelius or Finale or some music notation software. They do all of their editing through the computer. Something like that is not going to hurt a Billy Childs or Maria Schneider or Rufus Reid or a composer who’s pretty established, but it’s definitely going to hurt younger composers. The software is making it easier, but the software should not diminish the learning process. It’s all about balance—the balance of pushing back from the score so that the music in your ear has clarity in your mind.”

Caine uses Sibelius but is aware of its limitations: “When you’re writing you get addicted to hearing it back, played perfectly in time and in tune, even if it sounds plastic. That’s not the way it’s going to sound in real life.”

Coming from the more casual, collaborative jazz world, Caine says he had to make some adjustments when working with an orchestra. “Orchestras are really aware of their own identity and culture,” he says. “You are entering into their territory. For example, when they’d take a break, some guy would clap and that meant ‘That’s it,’ even in the middle of your sentence. Let’s just say it’s a different environment.”

To best write for an orchestra, Clayton recommends using a jazz bandleader’s mindset. “The whole Duke Ellington thing that all of us do is to write for the person, don’t write for the instrument,” he explains. “Find that violinist, violist, cellist, bass player that you feel good about as a person, write for them, and they’ll open up your world to writing for a large ensemble.” 

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